4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“You just had your ass handed to you by a goddamn retiree” — RED

Homage Comics was created in 1995 as an imprint of WildStorm Comics, itself one of the studios under the umbrella of Image Comics. Homage—named after the studio to which WildStorm founder Jim Lee belonged—was focused on writer-centered works. Image was famously artist-centric, as it was founded by a bunch of artists who hired writers to script their work. Homage, though, featured work developed by Kurt Busiek (Astro City), Jeff Mariotte (Desperadoes), James Robinson (Leave it to Chance), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), and Warren Ellis, whose RED was a three-issue series with art by Cully Hamner published in 2003.

WildStorm was later made part of DC Comics, and RED was optioned for a film after Warner Bros. (who has first refusal on all DC properties) passed on it.

The original three-issue series was a pretty simple story with only four characters: Paul Moses is a retired CIA agent whose only contact with the outside world is his phone conversations with his handler, Sally. A new CIA director reads his file and is appalled, and orders him killed in case word of the atrocities he’s committed for his country ever got out.

After Warner passed on it—a lengthy process, as it happens—Ellis and Hamner were free to shop it elsewhere, and it was picked up by Di Bonaventura Productions and Summit Films. Erich & Jon Hoeber, who had previously adapted Whiteout into a film, were hired to write a script, which used the original comics series as the base of a bigger story involving several former agents. Moses’s first name was changed to Frank, with Sally renamed Sarah, and the roles cast with Bruce Willis (last seen in this rewatch in the two Sin City films) and Mary-Louise Parker (last seen in this rewatch in R.I.P.D.), respectively, in the roles.

Additional characters created for the movie series include fellow ex-spies Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman, last seen in this rewatch in the Christopher Nolan Bat-films), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), and Victoria Winslow (Helen Mirren), plus Russian spy Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox, last seen in this rewatch in X2). In addition, various people our protagonists have to fight are played by Karl Urban (last seen in this rewatch in Dredd), Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon (last seen in this rewatch in the mid-2000s Fantastic Four movies), and Rebecca Pidgeon. Also appearing are Ernest Borgnine in a hilarious cameo as a CIA records keeper and James Remar as Gabriel Singer.

The movie was a massive hit, and it spawned a sequel three years later, which we’ll cover next week. Willis, Parker, Mirren, Malkovich, and Cox will all return for RED 2.

 

“You don’t have people killed, I have people killed, ’cause I’m the bad guy”

RED
Written by John Hoeber & Erich Hoeber
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian
Original release date: October 15, 2010

Screenshot: Summit Films

Frank Moses is a retiree who lives a dull, simple life in the Cleveland suburbs. His pension checks arrive like clockwork, but he tears them up so he can call his pension rep, Sarah, and talk to her on the phone. They talk regularly about various and sundry silly things—like the avocado he’s trying to grow or the trashy romance novels that they both read.

One morning, he wakes up because he hears a wet-work team approaching his house. He takes them all out, after they trash his house, showing tremendous skill (including faking the sounds of a gunfight by putting several bullets on a skillet on the stove and turning up the heat).

After disposing of the team—and cutting off all their fingers—he goes to Kansas City because he figures they were monitoring his phone calls, and he thinks Sarah is in danger. Sarah comes home from a disastrous blind date to find Frank in her apartment. She panics—and is also very confused to see that he packed her suitcase and also vacuumed her floors. He kidnaps her and drives to New Orleans, where one of his fellow retired agents, Joe Matheson, is living in a nursing home. However, Joe still has connections, and Frank gives him the fingers of the wet-work team to check their prints, having left Sarah tied up in a motel room.

We meet a CIA agent, William Cooper, who talks with his wife over the phone about issues with their son being bullied while staging a suicide at the house of a powerful person. He gets his next assignment from his boss, Cynthia Wilkes: Frank, whom he’s told is a retired analyst. Cooper sees that Frank has spent tons of phone time with Sarah, and tracks her. As it happens, Sarah has managed to get out of her bonds and call 911, a call Cooper tracks, and sends his own agents disguised as cops to take her.

Frank, though, shows up in time to save her, though not before she’s drugged. He has learned from Joe that the same team that went after him also is suspected in the death of a New York Times reporter. Frank steals a police car, but Cooper finds him and faces off against him. Frank nearly kills him, and does use his police radio to call in Cooper as a suspect, allowing Frank and Sarah to get away while Cooper is arrested by New Orleans Police.

Joe finds out that the wet-work team works for the CIA. Before he can call Frank to tell him that, someone walks into his room in the nursing home and aims a gun with a suppressor at him.

Sarah passes out, and when she wakes up, they’re in New York. They talk to the reporter’s mother—at this point, Sarah believes that Frank’s really a CIA agent and that people are trying to kill them both, and now she’s all in. After reading trashy romances about normal people having espionage adventures, she’s now living it.

Frank calls Joe for an update, but is told that he’s dead by the nursing home staff.

The reporter’s mother is frustrated by the piss-poor investigation into her daughter’s death—supposedly it was a burglary gone bad, but nothing was stolen. However, the reporter sent her Mom a postcard of the Washington Square Park arch with a sequence of numbers written on the back. The cops had no idea what it was, but Frank recognizes it as a callsign for a library book. They go to NYU’s library (NYU’s campus is on Washington Square Park) and find the book in question, in which a list of names was placed, presumably by the reporter.

Screenshot: Summit Films

There are several names on the list, and they’re mostly dead or have been targeted—including Frank. However, one of the names was believed killed ages ago: Marvin Boggs. But Frank knows that Marvin—who is spectacularly paranoid after he was experimented on by being dosed with LSD nonstop for months—is still alive and living in the Florida Everglades. They drive down to Florida.

Cooper is livid, as it’s obvious that Frank isn’t just an analyst. He confronts Wilkes, who sends him to a secret vault where all the black ops files are kept. Frank’s file is 90% redacted, but Cooper gets the gist.

After Frank and Sarah meet up with the spectacularly paranoid Marvin, the trio head to the one name on the list who’s still alive besides them: a pilot named Gabriel Singer, who now operates out of Mobile. He was flying a package out of Guatemala—a VIP, but he doesn’t know who it was specifically, just that he was important. Singer is then shot by a sniper, and Marvin and Frank barely get out of the airfield with their lives. (Marvin shoots an RPG right on the head with a bullet, causing it to explode prematurely and blow up the shooter, a damn near impossible shot that cut off the air supply to my disbelief, but whatever.)

They need to know what really happened in Guatemala, so they need to break into the CIA. Frank goes to his former rival, a Russian agent named Ivan Simanov, and they bond over their old careers over vodka. (Ivan is still bitter over Frank killing his cousin Igor, but Frank admits that he faked Igor’s death—in truth, he flipped him, and he now owns a chain of 7-11 franchises in Orange County and is 500 pounds.) Frank offers a favor in return for fake credentials to break into Langley. Ivan considers a favor from Frank Moses to be worth the trouble, and provides it.

Using credentials that say he’s a general and that Sarah is a nuclear physicist, they enter Langley and head down to the secret sub-basement, where the records-keeper (who remembers Frank fondly) gives him the Guatemala file. En route to the egress, Frank confronts Cooper—both come out of the brutal fight bloodied and wounded, though at one point Frank reveals that he trained the guy who trained Cooper.

Frank and Sarah set off a fire alarm and also cause an explosion, forcing an evacuation. Frank knocks out a firefighter and switches clothes with him to get past the checkpoint. Marvin is waiting in an ambulance—as is Joe! He got the drop on his would-be assassin and faked his own death.

They can’t go to a hospital, but another old colleague, a British assassin named Victoria Winslow, is living in Chesapeake. They drive up to her country mansion, and she stitches Frank up.

The file reveals another connection: Alexander Dunning, an arms dealer who’s under surveillance by the FBI. Posing as a Central American dictator, Joe takes a meeting with Dunning, with Marvin and Frank as his aides. Victoria takes up position with a sniper rifle, Sarah with her. They interrogate Dunning, who reveals that the package Singer was flying out of Guatemala was a Lieutenant Robert Stanton, whose father, a senator, arranged for the extraction after Stanton went nuts and massacred a village. (Frank and Marvin and Joe were all part of the team that covered that up.)

Stanton is now the vice president of the United States and is rumored to be running for president soon. So this particular cover-up needs to stay covered, hence everyone involved being targeted.

Cooper has been tipped off that they would be going after Dunning next, and he leads the FBI team to attack Dunning’s compound. Joe—who has stage-four liver cancer and not long to live anyhow—sacrifices himself as a distraction so Marvin and Frank can get away. (Cooper also had no intention of shooting “Frank,” but someone took the shot without his order.)

Screenshot: Summit Films

Victoria is able to cover their escape, but Sarah is captured. Ivan shows up out of nowhere to rescue them, and they go to a cabin he has. We learn that Victoria and Ivan are former lovers, and Ivan, at least, still carries a torch.

Frank goes to Cooper’s house and watches his family, then calls Cooper, telling him that if anything happens to Sarah, he’ll visit an even worse fate on his wife and two children. He also says he’s going to kill the vice president.

Cooper gets himself put on Stanton’s security detail. Stanton’s holding a fundraiser in Chicago, where he’s also announcing that he’s running for president. Victoria and Ivan fake a gas leak, which causes Stanton to be taken from the building. Victoria and Marvin start shooting at him in the parking lot, and then again in the kitchen, and generally make a mess, sending the security detail to and fro until they see a limo with the White House seal. They jump in, despite Cooper advising them not to—and it turns out Frank is driving it. He tases the Secret Service agents and Stanton, dumps the agents on the street, and takes the vice president hostage.

He calls Cooper—who is sitting in the now-empty ballroom waiting for his call—and tells him to meet at an abandoned power station in Evanston to exchange Stanton for Sarah. Cooper calls Wilkes, who promises to bring Sarah for the hostage exchange.

Wilkes arrives with Sarah—and with Dunning, who it turns out is pulling the strings. He used his financial pull to make Stanton vice president and soon president. Wilkes is in his pocket, and she assumes that Cooper will go along with this all.

In that, she’s dead wrong. Cooper helps Frank—and also Victoria and Marvin and Ivan—take out Dunning and Wilkes and their snipers. Cooper promises to fix the situation, though one suspects that Stanton’s presidential bid isn’t long for the world.

They drive off in Ivan’s car, with Frank thrilled to realize that nobody’s trying to kill them anymore. Then Ivan reminds him that Frank owes him a favor…

 

“I never thought I’d say this again—I am getting the pig!

Screenshot: Summit Films

Okay, my favorite story about this movie has nothing to do directly with the movie, but I want to share it here. Warren Ellis (with whom I almost worked twenty years ago, and who was a friend back then, though we haven’t spoken in ages) made enough money from the option on this film to buy a pony for his daughter. He posted a picture of it to Twitter and begged everyone to go see the film, because now he has to feed the fucking thing.

What’s particularly fascinating about this adaptation is that is both diverts immensely from the original story, and yet is a faithful adaptation of it. The thing is that usually when you’re adapting a comic book series—this applies to a novel as well—you’re taking the original and distilling the story down, as a movie has less storytelling space. With the movies in this rewatch, it’s even more distilling, as some of these characters have decades and decades of history to pull a movie story from.

Even the movies that adapt shorter works are still ones that have a certain amount of meat on the storyline, certainly enough for a two-hour movie—KickAss, R.I.P.D., Cowboys & Aliens, Men in Black, Kingsman.

RED is an unusual case in that the source material is only three issues and is a very small story—but small in a good way. Mind you, the actual story of the comic book is still there, for the most part, dispensed with in the first half-hour or so—but it perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the film.

Since Ellis and Hamner’s actual story isn’t enough for a full movie, the expansion makes a certain sense. And it takes on a backstory element in the original, which is about the aging process. The casting here is superb, giving us five fantastic older actors who all are brilliant at inhabiting their roles. The script is a nifty meditation on aging, on becoming obsolete, and on trying to find a way to live after the world has decided you’re done. And also on how your perspective changes as you age.

There’s not a bad performance in the bunch, either. Morgan Freeman is never not perfect, and his dirty-old-man act hides a canny operator. (That he’s killed and also the only African American is an unfortunate look, though it’s slightly ameliorated by the fact that he was dying anyhow and he chose to sacrifice himself rather than be a victim. But only slightly.) John Malkovich is magnificently insane with simply superlative facial expressions as the befuddled, batshit Marvin. Brian Cox’s Ivan is pure laconic charm, and Helen Mirren plays Victoria with a beautiful mix of charming older British lady and deadly assassin. (Even if the rest of the movie sucked, it would be worth it for the visual of Mirren shooting the shit out of the parking garage with the big-ass gun.)

Nobody ever went wrong casting Richard Dreyfuss as a smarmy shitheel, and he smarmy-shitheels the hell out of his role as Dunning, making it ridiculously easy (and fun) to root against him. Nobody ever went wrong casting Karl Urban as anything, and he’s excellent as Cooper, making him a worthy adversary—he’s very obviously set up as what Frank was like in his younger days, and I’m extremely disappointed that he wasn’t brought back for the sequel, given his heel-turn at the end.

But the stars of the movie are Mary-Louise Parker and Bruce Willis. Parker is a delight as Sarah. She starts off as a bored government worker trying to find a way to get through the workday and eagerly looking forward to the calls from Frank to break the monotony of her dull job and her awful blind dates. Once she gets past being (justifiably) appalled at Frank breaking into her home and kidnapping her to New Orleans, she’s having an absolute blast, and her, it must be said, youthful enthusiasm for the mayhem-filled world of spies is infectious.

And Willis gives one of his best performances here. He leans into Ellis’s portrayal of a professional killer who’s at loose ends, trying to find a way to be normal now that he’s retired, and his awkwardness is just adorable (even as he’s calmly killing an entire wet-work team).

Robert Schwentke (who also directed R.I.P.D.) does a superlative job with the action here, keeping everything moving, getting great performances out of his (admittedly already great) actors, and in particular keeps the tone just the right level of absurd.

And the script is patently absurd. The CIA doesn’t operate domestically (they’re not allowed to), and even if they did, they’d do it in a manner that didn’t involve on-street shootouts in the suburbs and in the middle of New Orleans, big-ass explosions in airports, and other incredibly public actions that would draw overwhelming attention from local law-enforcement and the press.

Luckily, it leans into that absurdity, which makes the discourses on aging that much more amusing, resulting in a movie that’s just tons of fun.

 

Next week, as you might expect, will be RED 2.

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s next novel is Alien: Isolation, based on both the classic movie series and the hit videogame, which is available for preorder from Titan Books. Read an excerpt from the novel, as well as a short interview with Keith, at SYFY Wire.

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